Punctuation Matters!

This post has been written in coordination with the latest episode of the TEFL Commute podcast, which I produce with Lindsay Clandfield and Shaun Wilden. You can listen to the episode on our website by clicking here.
Punctuation matters, so here are some fun ideas to get your students to be more careful when writing.


Occasionally I’ve had a student who doesn’t seem to realise that punctuation, capitalisation and spacing are actually things that really matter when writing. Spaces are deposited at random places. Commas are used in between what should definitely be two different sentences. Sometimes punctuation is omitted completely, and you’re left with a piece of writing that resembles a stream of consciousness that you have to try and unpack.  ‘English’ is continually written as ‘english’.

I tend to be quite strict with these things, even at a lower level (it’s good to get them out of these habits early, I think) so I talk about it with my students and point it out in their writing feedback.

There is a temptation to ignore these points which must be resisted, I think. It’s very easy to think that the priority must be the vocabulary and grammar, and while I would agree with that, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of form. If the students are writing in the first place, they need to understand that in a professional capacity, which is how most students will use their writing abilities in English, poor writing can create a lasting and damaging impression.

It’s not the most exciting subject, to be fair, but thanks to the Internet, there are a wealth of images you can use with your students to demonstrate the importance of punctuation.

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And a couple of spacing ‘fails’…

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Hopefully using examples like these will make it very obvious to your students why punctuation matters!

All examples of punctuation errors come from here. The spacing errors come from here and here.

The End Of An Era


If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, or follow me on social media, you should be aware of my involvement in BELTA. BELTA is the Belgian English Language Teachers Association, which I co-founded in 2012 with Mieke Kenis and Guido Europeaantje, and have been president of since its inception.

I won’t tell you the full story of how BELTA started here, you can find out more on our website. Suffice it to say we started it from scratch and in four short years we have hosted 3 annual conferences with plenary speakers including Jeremy Harmer, Luke Meddings, Hugh Dellar and Philip Kerr, had nearly 30 webinars, two online conferences with TESL Toronto, published our journal the BELTA Bulletin, ran a very successful blog, and brought something new to the ELT scene in Belgium and internationally.

So why am I telling you about this now? Well, simply put, I’m no longer BELTA president. I’ve decided to resign as it’s time for a new stage in my professional life. There are things I need to do that I’m hoping will enable me to have more options professionally and it’s impossible for me to concentrate on these and dedicate myself to BELTA as I have in the last few years. It wasn’t an easy decision by any means, but I know it’s the right one.


Kicking off the first BELTA Day in June 2013

So I writing this post for two reasons. Firstly, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has been involved in BELTA since we started. To everyone who came to our events, online and off, to every conference and webinar speaker, to every volunteer, to every follower on Twitter and Facebook, every blog reader, and of course, every BELTA member, thank you.

But most of all I want to thank my fellow BELTA board members Mieke, Ellen, John, Vicky, Vedrana, Joris and Jurgen. It’s been an absolute joy and a privilege to work with you and an honour to be your president. I’m still grateful for the day when you decided that I should be president even though you knew I would be leaving the country in a few months. There are countless examples of fine judgement you have shown since we started, and hope that it one of them! BELTA is the thing I am most proud of in my professional life, and that’s all down to you, so I really can’t thank you enough.

The closest we ever got to a photo of the board in 2015 - stuffing leaflets into conference bags!

The closest we ever got to a photo of the board – stuffing leaflets into conference bags!

The first BELTA board, Jurgen, Ellen, Mieke and me.

The first BELTA board, Jurgen, Ellen, Mieke and me.

When we founded BELTA, we were all complete novices. None of us had any experience in running a teachers’ association and we had limited contacts in Belgium. That didn’t stop us. I had a mantra back then that I used to set the tone for how we conducted ourselves:

We have no money, no members and no experience, but we’re going to act like we have all three.

The idea of this was to establish that our amateurism wasn’t an excuse for poor, substandard work. We commissioned an easy to navigate and attractive looking website as early as we possibly could. We started our webinars very early on and only invited speakers who we knew would be excellent. We have the same high standards for our conference speakers, and blog and journal writers. Our newsletters, posters and social media accounts look good and are maintained regularly. Our sponsors are extremely well looked after and listened to, as our members.

Introducing Hugh Dellar in 2015

Introducing Hugh Dellar in 2015

The lesson I have learnt is that you have to demand a lot of yourself when you offer a service. Of course, if you’re a volunteer then you will probably have less time than you would like, but that’s not excuse for something second rate. And whatever service you offer, paid or unpaid, you can’t expect it to be rewarding and fulfilling unless you pour a lot into it. It’s as true of teaching as it is of volunteering.

The effect of this approach is huge. I hope from reading this you can see the effect BELTA has had on me. If you wish to have a experience like this in your life, the only way is to go for it, to go all in, demand a lot from yourself, expect the same from others while respecting their skills, autonomy and commitments, and enjoy the process of collaboration. If you do, what you are able to achieve will surprise you and the rewards are huge.

BELTA will go on, of course, in the more than capable hands of the new president, John Arnold, and I’ll still be involved, whenever they need me, in an scaled back, advisory position. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.

Advice For Teaching Teens

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this on Facebook:

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I got some great advice from my friends, so I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you here.

Thom Jones Keep them on their toes, don’t worry if they think you’re a bit of a nutter.

Graeme Hodgson Expect to deviate from your lesson plan and just enjoy those “teachable moments” of emergent language!

Fiona Mauchline Listen like you’ve never listened before. To anyone. Listen, learn, and show them you have.

Maria P. Vlachopoulou Try to keep up with the latest trends, gadgets, bands, songs etc and prepare to face change of moods in seconds!

Higor Cavalcante Listen to them and take them seriously. They are not children any longer. You’ll have a great time!

Thiago Veigga Only show interest when you are genuinely interested, because they’ll do the same. The thing I miss most about teaching teens are the date stories!

Shelly Sanchez Terrell They love making videos and love music. They’ll test you and pretend they’re bored but eventually they open up and have many opinions. Find ways to get them to express them and refine them.

Bruno Andrade Get into their world. Learn the songs they’re listening to, the games they are playing, the app they are using and incorporate them into your lessons (and conversations) as much as possible! That really helps in terms of rapport.

JoAnn Salvisberg-Smith Make the lesson all about them.

Roseli Serra Just relax , be friendly, but firm, let them think they have you in their hands and you’ll have them easily! And enjoy! They are challenging , but marvellous! They love music and videos, so using songs they love might be a good start.

Steven Herder 1. Don’t let the curriculum or the syllabus dictate your first month of classes. Take as much time as you need to get to know the students, challenging them to get to know each other better.
2. Build a learning community by having them find their roles – as leaders, mood makers, listeners, supporters, organized ones, gritty ones, challengers, enthusiasts, etc.
3. Observe everything and listen to everyone.

Cindy Moss Respect them by getting to know them and value their opinions.

Sue Annan Be firm at first until you get their measure. Then you can relax when you know them better.

Laura Phelps Authenticity and surreal humour. Enjoy!


Edmilson M Chagas Laugh with them when they get a fit of the giggles for no reason. They often do. Be as playful as you can, but be prepared to draw the line when necessary and make sure they don’t cross it. If they ever do, or whenever you feel they have a problem, try to talk with them in private. Be friendly and understanding. If they don’t want to open up to you, tell them it’s all right and that you’ll be there for them if they change their minds.

Dina Dobrou Become a teen yourself! Try to remember what it was like and be the teacher you’ve always wanted to have yourself!

Michael Harrison Never generalise or treat them as if they are all the same. No two teenagers are the same (no one is). Some will like using gadgets; some will prefer to spend lesson time away from the iPads. Some will love music, sport, video games; others won’t. As long as you treat them as responsible individuals, it should be a blast!

Carlos Gontow Read this book. I wish I had read it when I started teaching!

Victoria Boobyer Be interested in them. Have time for them. My favourite age group by far.

Vassiliki Mandalou Look at them in the eyes, be silent and let them unfold whatever they have inside from statements , questions, doubts, even withdrawal or negativity. I’ve experienced that every time I let them take the first step to talk, they let it come out as we say and freed from the above they are in position to listen to you. Tone of voice is rather important too. Try a low polite but firm speech. Also try keep notes of each one personally, this will really help them find self-esteem.

Shaun Dowling Don’t follow the material.

Cindy Moss Establish a culture where they respect each other. I taught my students a South African phrase “Umtu ngumtu nagabantu” which means “a person is a person because of other people”. It was our golden rule and if a student said something mean to another student, we would look at them and say “Umtu ngumtu nagabantu” to remind them to treat others with respect. Teenagers like secret phrases and enjoyed using this one.

Rob Howard Be yourself. Open yourself up to them. Make a private Facebook group for the class. Make a video of your life and show it. Be honest and true and respect them. Tell them you are there to help them find their own voice. A facilitator. Then, tell them you expect the same and after a few weeks, have them make videos on whatever they choose. Group and regroup them out of their clicks and in a month you’ll have a real learning community. Now watch them grow together.

Guido Europeaantje Prepare half an extra class and be prepared to dump activities that don’t work.

Marcos Raul Mendelson Do not make friends with them. Facilitate their learning. Be enthusiastic and smile from time to time. It is contagious. Tell less, show more. Be happy.

David Dodgson Two things my teen groups respond well to:
1. Metacognition – they have reached an age where they can think about more abstract stuff like learning theories. The quiet ones like the self-reflection/assessment stuff as well.
2. Stories I tell ’em ’bout when I were a lad. They love the fallibility of it all!

Jeffrey Doonan Learn their names quickly and use them often, connect with them as individuals as much as possible. Be yourself, teens sense phonies easily. You, most likely, know better than they what they should learn and what they need to learn. Help them to see and understand these things in a way that they think it is their decision. Have fun with the experience.

Wiktor Kostrzewski Here’s a thing my tango teacher tells me these days, and I find it works for classroom management: everything you do is information. The way you walk, stand, praise, demand – the teens I teach pick it all up much quicker than grown-ups..

Patty Salguero Get back to your memories when you were a teen and try to understand their perspective. They are very creative if you establish the right “rapport” for your group. Never forget they have a need to express themselves as they are very critical and tend to think nobody cares about their opinions. Show you are interested in them since the first moment. They will appreciate your efforts if you plan thinking of them.

Teresa Gomes de Carvalho Sometimes they behave in ways that are hard for us to understand. We usually think it’s about us or our class, but actually, it might have nothing to do with us: it might be about issues they’re facing at school or at home, sometimes a bad hair day, problems with a boyfriend/girlfriend, bad grades, low self esteem. They are too self-conscious and peer pressure is a problem. Another reason is that in monolingual classes they don’t see the point of communicating with each other in another language: it just doesn’t feel natural. Also, don’t expect them to understand English is important for their future, for their careers. They live in the here-and-now. The future is usually too abstract for them, so help them them see that English is important for them now, to understand the world. They are also afraid of being judged by their English. Some will try to impress their friends while others will try to ‘sabotage’ the class so that they don’t have to expose themselves. So many things going on in their lives and still, we think we’re ‘the center of their universes.’


Thanks to everyone who commented, it’s much appreciated. If you have some advice of your own you’d like to add, leave a comment below.

Flipped Teacher Training

Webinar 9 Feb 2014 2

If you’re responsible for teacher development in your school, you might sometimes find that it’s a burden to continually try and find ways to come up with new materials and approaches. Given the choice, I’m sure you’d love to invite Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury or Penny Ur to come in and give a talk or do a workshop. However, thanks to the massive availability of talks and webinars online, it is possible for your teachers to be trained by the leaders in our field without the speakers even knowing about it.

I think the best way to use these materials in your training sessions is to use a flipped approach. Instead of watching the talk together, you can ask your trainees to watch it before the training session. They can make some notes of things they want to discuss and questions they have which they can bring to the session for discussion.

This was something I did a few months at my previous school. We watched Hugh Dellar’s webinar for BELTA, Five Golden Rules, on the Lexical Approach and then discussed the implications of his talk in the training session. What this achieved was that rather than being a solely trainer-led session, it was much more equal and discursive and offered an interesting variety to normal sessions. Continue reading

BRELT Webinar

BRELT webinar jamestaylor_dec2015

This Thursday December 10th, I will be doing a webinar for the good people of BRELT. You can find out more about it here on their website but if you don’t speak Portuguese here’s the abstract:

If you’re the kind of teacher who goes to webinars, reads books, goes to conferences and generally tries to keep up to date with what is going on in the world of ELT, it can be difficult to make sense of all of these ideas and opinions. In this talk, I’m going to try and cut through the noise and present my list of overrated and underrated areas in ELT today. You might not agree with all of them, but you’re sure to find it thought-provoking!

The talk is in English and not aimed particularly at Brazilian teachers, so I think it’s suitable for any ELT teacher. To get the link to the talk, you can check the BRELT Facebook page or follow them on Twitter. And to find out what time the webinar is happening in your time zone, click here.

It’s free to join, so I hope I see you on Thursday!

Update: You can now watch the recording of my talk here:

Failure And How To Stop It Before It Happens


Picture taken from here.

I think we need to talk about failure. If you teach adults, there’s a good chance you’re teaching a room full of people who have failed to learn English at some point in their lives. I should clarify that when I say failed, I don’t mean that they were a complete disaster, but they probably didn’t reach the target they set for themselves. They’ve probably taken a bit of time off, which could be six months, five years or maybe even longer, and they’ve decided to have another crack. Continue reading

TEFL Is An Iceberg – Reflections on CELTA and Standards


When I worked in Costa Rica, my school required teachers to be CELTA or equivalent qualified. They didn’t care where the person was from, whether they were local, a native speaker or a non-native speaker, as long as you had the qualification and experience, then you could work there. To my knowledge, it was the only private language school in the country that had that requirement. The only one. The other schools, and there were quite a few, did not require  the same level of qualifications or experience. Most of them had a preference for native speakers (as I’ve written about here), but qualified teachers were not on their radar. As a result, the school where I worked normally recruited teachers from abroad to come to Costa Rica because, as my DoS once pointed out, all of the qualified teachers living in the country were already working there. Continue reading